Anyone looking for signs of how dramatically the technology industry is changing simply had to walk through the front door of the Consumer Electronics Show this week.
One of the first things visitors to the central hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center saw was a big booth from Hisense. The Chinese company – which, despite its relatively low profile in North America, is one of the world’s largest TV makers – had the plum spot at CES, right at the front entrance of the main building.
Until recently, that space belonged to Microsoft. The American software giant stopped exhibiting at CES in 2012, paving the way for the Chinese TV maker to claim the prime real estate.
It was a move that reflected the changing nature of the show, which has been seeing large companies drop out or scale back in recent years and up-and-comers take over the spotlight.
Two years on from Microsoft’s departure, CES is a different event – and a much better one at that.
Rather than a stodgy venue where tech behemoths roll out unimpressive iterative products – a camera with a few more megapixels, a computer with a faster processor – it’s quickly becoming what it was really meant to be all along: A showcase for innovative and exciting new advancements that challenge the status quo.
Hisense is a case in point. While the company was showing off the same sort of OLED and ultra-high-definition televisions as its competitors, the star of its booth was the upcoming Roku TV, the result of a partnership with the California-based streaming device maker.
Roku is melding its popular set-top box into a Hisense screen to create a new kind of “smart,” internet-connected TV. One that actually has a smart, fast and easy-to-use interface, unlike the often slow, inelegant and cumbersome offerings being sold by better-known rivals.
The Chinese company was one of the few television makers willing to take a chance and partner on the venture, according to a Roku spokesperson. The more established TV brands are already committed to their own internally developed (and generally wonky) software and interfaces.
If the alliance succeeds, the Roku TV – which worked well and looked great at the show – could force competitors to rethink those interfaces, leading to better smart televisions overall. Some could even abandon their own efforts and, like Hisense, partner with software providers that are more adept at designing consumer-friendly products.
It’s how innovation is supposed to work: everybody wins in the end when new things are tried.
Mega-booth an endangered species
The rest of the central hall, meanwhile, was decidedly quieter this year thanks to the shrinking number of mega-booths.
Samsung, Sony and LG still had their usual mammoth city-state-like exhibits, churning out sense-assaulting light shows and noise. Delivering more impact on the audience, however, were the numerous, decidedly less vaudevillian booths from mid-sized companies.
The likes of action camera maker GoPro and robot cleaner designer Moneual, rapidly on their way to becoming household names, were showing off their new wares without the often-obnoxious fanfare that CES has become famous for in its 47-year history.
Next door, the north hall of the convention centre was taken over by car companies that, believe it or not, are entering a technological golden age. Manufacturers have discovered that cars, too, can be gadgets, which means that the same fast pace of innovation seen in areas such as phones and tablets is now being applied to vehicles.
The upcoming changes will range from subtle to dramatic. BlackBerry-owned QNX, for one, is designing systems that can change the sound of cars – noise-cancelling speakers that quiet engines and even downloadable “ringtones” that could make an old Honda Civic rev like a Porsche.
Google, while not officially at CES, used the event to announce the Open Automotive Alliance, a conglomeration of major car makers dedicated to adopting its Android operating system, starting this year.
With car makers such as Nissan and BMW also predicting that driverless robot cars will be commercially available by 2020, the north hall of CES is promising to be incredibly exciting over the next few years.
Internet of things
And then there’s the south hall, or ground-zero for the connected home and the internet of things – both tech buzzwords that have been tossed around for years, but which are now starting to deliver tangible products.
From digital locks such as the GoJi that allow access to homes via smartphones, to 3D scanners from the likes of Toronto-based Matterform that essentially allow for the photo-copying of real objects, the building was a veritable smorgasbord of the future this week.
Some of the products will flop and some, such as Belkin’s internet-connected WeMo slow cooker, may seem goofy. But as Bre Pettis, chief executive of 3D printer manufacturer MakerBot, put it, “go to the back of south hall to see what is coming next.”
CES may have lost some of its lustre with the pullback of the industry’s bigger and more established players, but it’s actually becoming a more exciting show in spite of it. Fewer mega-booths peddling the same old stuff with minor improvements means more space for the new and nimble up-and-comers that are actually looking to shake things up.
The venerable technology trade show’s future has never looked brighter.